Transportation safety researchers from the University of California – Berkeley and the University of West Virginia have noticed a troubling aspect of vehicle safety design, one that could point to a link between obesity and the risk of dying in a fatal car accident.

According to Thomas Rice and Motao Zhu, cars are generally engineered to provide a safe structure to drivers and passengers of normal weight. Obese occupants, on the other hand, may not benefit as much from existing car safety design. The researchers reviewed the extensive Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, to get an idea of fatal motor vehicle accidents in America. Looking at information spanning over a decade between 1996 and 2008, the scientists found that a higher body mass index (BMI) corresponded with a higher risk of death in the event of a crash.

The research team examined only collisions involving two cars, with both of the vehicles being of similar size and structure. Observing the data gathered from over 57,000 accidents, they found that drivers with a BMI between 30 and 34.9 (considered obese) had a 21 percent higher risk of dying in a car accident than their non-obese counterparts. Extremely obese drivers, or those with a BMI of 40 or above, saw a whopping 80 percent increase in their risk of death by car accident, compared to drivers with a normal BMI (between 18.5 and 24.9).

In Virginia, obesity rates have inched upward over the past decade, and the state’s population now has a higher rate of obesity than the national average. What this means for drivers is that many face a very real risk of experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Even having a normal BMI, though, won’t fully protect surviving victims of fatal crashes from those incidents’ other effects, such as medical expenses or mental pain and suffering.

Source: The New Zealand Herald, “Obesity raises risk of car crash death – research.” AFP, Jan. 23, 2013.